Category Archives: palaeontology

Kuwoot yas.ein – A video about the discoveries at On-Your-Knees Cave, SE Alaska

Tim Heaton at work in OYK cave.  Screenshot from video.

Tim Heaton at work in OYK cave. Screenshot from video.

On July 4, 1996, paleontologist Tim Heaton was busy at his last day of fieldwork at On-Your-Knees Cave on northern Prince of Wales Island, Southeast Alaska (map).  At this and other caves Heaton had recovered a remarkable array of fauna from both before, during, and after the last glacial maximum, including a variety of black and brown bear bones.  Until this point, he had not found any human remains, but that changed with the discovery of a human mandible and the subsequent discoveries of other scattered, chewed remains.  In due course, an archaeological site was also found at the entrance to the cave, dating to about 10,300 calender years ago, the same as the human remains. Excavation at this site was led by E. James (Jim) Dixon, whose footsteps I often feel like I am stumbling along in. In one layer in the site, they actually found one of the missing teeth from the mandible, showing the extent to which the bones had been scattered, and, sinisterly, chewed, presumably by bears.  The most likely interpretation is that the site represents a bear hunting camp at the entrance to the cave, and that on at least one occasion, the bears got the upper hand.

Anyway, the remains of this young man have revealed important details of the life of early people on the Northwest Coast, and the study also exemplifies how strong relationships, respect, and adherence to protocol can allow for scientific and cultural priorities to unfold together. It’s therefore quite exciting to find a 30 minute video detailing the process of research at On-Your-Knees Cave: “Kuwoot yas.ein: His Spirit is Looking Out from the Cave“.

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Manis Mastodon: a 13,800 year old Archaeological Site on the Northwest Coast

CT slice through Mastodon rib exposing bone point profile. Source: Waters et al. 2011.

For a long time, the Manis Mastodon site near Sequim, Washington was the elephant in the room of the Northwest Coast early period.  The apparent bone point embedded in a mastodon rib was seemingly hard to explain by any non-cultural means, yet maddeningly short of definitive proof, and so was politely ignored. The point has always been a thorn in my side too, which is why I have posted on it three times, once over a year ago, and twice recently.

Maybe I am a bit obsessed with it because if I rise gently from my sofa in Blog World Headquarters, being careful not to spill fine single malt on my pyjamas, then through my window I can see Sequim in the extreme distance, seemingly mocking me.

So all the more cathartic that today, with the publication of a convincing re-analysis of the mastodon rib by Michael Waters et al. in the respected journal Science, we can say that the  site is, indeed, evidence of humans hunting Mastodon on the Northwest Coast 13,800 years ago.  That’s about eight hundred years pre-Clovis.  Like I said before: it’s real.  It’s old. It’s on the coast.  Wow.

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More on Manis Mastodon

Image from the Mammoth Trumpet. Source: CSFA. Click to enlarge somewhat.

While we wait patiently for the definitive word on the rumoured exciting new developments regarding the 14,000 year old, pre-Clovis Manis Mastodon site near Sequim, Washington, I thought it was worth a new post to pass on an article a regular reader of this blog brought to my attention.

The Center for the Study of the First Americans, the same organization who is now re-analysing Manis Mastodon, have for many years published a very informative newsletter they call the Mammoth Trumpet.  Some of the early issues are online, including one which has a 1987 report on the Manis site(PDF).  I had not seen this before (the whole archives are worth a post on their own) and the article has some interesting information, including the picture above.

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Intriguing rumours about the Manis Mastodon site

Screenshot of Manis news from the website of the Center for the Study of First Americans. Click to go to page.

[October 20 edit: Manis article now out in Science, my post here.]

Quite a while ago I posted about some of the frustrations I felt about the Manis Mastodon site, near Sequim on the Olympic peninsula.  This 1970s find of a Mastodon skeleton had one singularly enigmatic feature: there appeared to be the broken tip of a bone point embedded in one of its ribs.  As I wrote before: yank that sucker out! – so we can determine for sure if this is a human made artifact dating to the same age as the Mastodon – about 14,000 years ago.  Being well pre-Clovis and right near the coast, this find would be of profound importance to our archaeological understanding of the first arrival of people into the Americas.  Now, as you can read above, there is an intriguing hint that Manis has finally been re-examined, and found to be a legitimate Pleistocene archaeological site. It’s real.  Wow.

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Salmon species now knowable from vertebrae

Measurement of vertebral height. Source: Huber et al. 2011

Salmon are a crucial cultural keystone species across most of the Northwest,  of very high importance to many coastal and interior cultural groups for thousands of years.  Many archaeological sites are chock full of salmon bones, and the oldest of these are around 10,000 years old.  As a cultural story, the importance of salmon is obvious.  Increasingly though, the archaeological data are also invoked to tell the history of salmon themselves.  The very long-term view of the archaeological record provides  knowledge of their ranges, their relative abundance, their life histories, etc.  These data can then be harnessed as part of conservation and fisheries management of these threatened species of fish.

Each species offers different things to people: some run early, some late; some are more fatty, some leaner; some run in huge compact numbers, others tend to dribble by; some can be caught in large numbers in the open ocean, others can only be caught efficiently in streams.  There’s just one problem with using salmon bones in archaeology: until recently, you really couldn’t tell one species of salmon from another based only on their bones.

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Florida Mammoth Engraving is Real?

Vero Beach, Florida, mammoth engraving. Source: National Geographic.

I’ve been vaguely aware that in 2009 at Vero Beach (map) near Miami, a sensational find came to light of a bone with a mammoth engraved onto it.  So far there has not been a lot to say about it but now I read that Dennis Stanford at the Smithsonian has inspected it and found no reason to think it is not genuine (yes, that kind of double-negative convoluted opinion).

Anyway, the story is interesting in its own right and perhaps has some lessons for us on the NW Coast as well, which I’ll discuss at more length below.

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Heritage Dinosaurs?

Closeup of the skull and teeth of Vancouver Island's Puntledge River elasmosaur. Source:

Only occasionally does this space turn its eye to fossils, but there’s been quite a bit of press this last week about the perceived lack of protection of fossil sites in British Columbia, some of which are alleged to be ground up for “kitty litter” (archive, etc).  In that CBC report the Minister of Agriculture and Lands lists a whole variety of ways that fossil sites are, indeed, protected, in response to the general position of the paleontologists that there was no such legal protection. I believe this page summarizes the government’s position (which does indeed explicitly allow commercial exploitation in principle, though they are not currently taking kitty litter applications.  The page is a virtual museum of weasel words and contradictory information and frankly, makes almost no coherent sense).

Anyhow,  the most direct and obvious way that such sites are, in my opinion, already protected, or the way they could be: by the Heritage Conservation Act (HCA).

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Long term salmon resilience

Salmon lice infestation. Source: Georgia Strait Alliance.

I’ve just dipped into an interesting paper (PDF) by Sarah Campbell and Virginia Butler, which explores 7,500 years of relationship between First Nations and Pacific Salmon.  While, as ever, the archaeological evidence is discontinuous and somewhat patchy, the authors reach profound conclusions that go far beyond the usual archaeological focus on the past, as if the past still exists other than in the present.

The Northwest Coast was estimated to have the second highest indigenous population density in North America (after California) at European contact, with population estimates ranging from 102,100 to 210,100 (Ubelaker 2006). Haggan et al. (2006) propose an annual average per person consumption rate of 230 kg/yr based on two 19th- century estimates. At this rate, 200,000 people would annually consume 46,000 metric tons (50,706 tons) of salmon, comparable in magnitude to the average yearly commercial catch between 1901 and 2000 (Jones 2002). (emphasis added)

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Still no Clovis Comet

Oh noes, my tusks are on fire. Source:

I talked once before about the “Clovis Comet” theory, which suggested the widespread extinctions of megafauna in North America at the end of the last ice age was caused by a large comet impact.  At the same moment, the highly distinctive “Clovis” archaeological culture was terminated.  It was suggested this comet might have either airburst or struck the ice sheets, in either case not causing a visible crater.  However, abundant “nanodiamonds”, said to be highly diagnostic of an extraterrestrial impact, were found at a widespread boundary layer roughly associated with the end of Clovis – the start of the Younger Dryas cold period when the earth was suddenly thrust back into near-glacial conditions.

So, I said then and I’ll say again now: this theory didn’t pass the sniff test from the beginning because it is another example of “Clovis exceptionalism” – the skeptical leeway that the Clovis-First model of first peopling of the Americas has been afforded by segments of the archaeological community.  No Clovis model was so implausible that it wasn’t given much respectful beard-stroking by the usual silverbacks.

Anyway, subsequent studies of the nanodiamonds and associated evidence have failed utterly to reproduce the findings.  Now comes even more news that the comet theory is unsupported and that the original investigators may have mistaken nanodiamonds for, among other things . . .  [drumroll] . . .  “hardened faecal material from arthropods.”

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The Bison at Ayer Pond on Orcas Island is archaeological.

Cranium of 14,000 year old Bison antiquus from Ayer Pond, Orcas Island, Salish Sea. Source: Kenady et al. 2010 (in press)

One of the challenges in archaeology is to take a familiar landscape and, by considering the known data from the paleo sciences, make it strange and unfamiliar and ripe with possibilities for strange and unfamiliar archaeology.  Right here in the southern Salish Sea there is an excellent example of this coming to light.  As the ice retreated at the end of the last glacial period, the Salish Sea saw dramatic changes in sea level (both higher, and lower), in vegetation (tundra, grassland, and forest) and in the animals present on that dynamic landscape.

Location of known Bison antiquus remains in Salish Sea. Source: Wilson et al. 2009.

For years now, we have known that one of the large land mammal species of the Salish Sea around 14,000 years ago was bison — and not just any bison, but Bison antiquus, the extinct giant bison.  A number of remains of this creature have been found, mostly on the Saanich Peninsula and on Orcas Island,  which is one of the largest islands in the Salish Sea, sitting just south of Saturna Island, close to the Canadian Border.  Since these remains mostly clocked in at around 13,000 to 14,000 years ago, most archaeologists were interested in them primarily for their coolness factor and not because they seriously thought there might be relevance to early human presence here – these bison pre-date the Clovis Culture which was the consensual evidence for the first peopling of the Americas.  I have previously posted on this with reference to Clovis in Puget Sound, to the controversial Manis Mastodon site, as well as to the nearby Wenas Mammoth and even the Paisley Cave finds in Oregon – evidence is coming together for both a Clovis and a pre-Clovis occupation of the Salish Sea and environs.

Now with a new paper by Kenady et al. in press, these numerous bison finds take on a new importance: one of them is most likely archaeological.

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